New Wine, Old Wineskins

Sermon for Reformation Sunday
October 29, 2023

A lot of churches serve real wine with communion. A lot of churches serve grape juice. Some churches give you a choice between wine and grape juice.

Our church believes that we should eat from the same loaf and drink from the same cup. And so we don’t have a single chalice we all drink from, but we all do drink the same thing—grape juice—and we all drink from the cup at the same time. Not everybody agrees with our way of doing it, but we find it meaningful.

Drinking grape juice at communion is a relatively recent development. There was no way grape juice would keep for very long until a process called pasteurization was invented. Pasteurization wasn’t invented for grape juice. It was originally used to make other foods last longer, such as milk. But a man named Thomas Welch, a Methodist minister, developed its use for communion so that churches wouldn’t have to use wine during a period when prohibition was gaining in popularity. That’s the real origin of Welch’s grape juice, so think about that the next time you’re in the juice aisle of the grocery store.

Though unfermented wine can’t be kept for long, it does exist, obviously. Immediately after the grapes are pressed and before the juice starts to ferment, there’s a brief period when unfermented juice exists. It’s called must. And there are certain circumstances when the Roman Catholic Church will approve its use for holy communion—such as when a priest is unable to drink wine… but this is a rare occurrence—probably because must is rare. It has to be used almost immediately after the grapes are pressed or it will either go bad or start to ferment (unless it’s preserved by freezing).

And between the time the wine first starts to ferment and the time it’s bottled, it’s new wine—which is sort of like wine, but not really. If you’re thinking I know more about this than a pastor should, then I guess I’m guilty as charged. You see, back when I was in college, I took a semester off and stayed in Germany. I got a job at a winery in a little town on the Rhine. It was nothing interesting—I just prepared packing slips. I did spend one day picking grapes, though (in German, it’s called reading the grapes, or Weinlese), but that was nightmarish, and I didn’t care to repeat that experience. But I learned a lot about German wine that fall.

And one thing I learned about was new wine, which in that part of Germany was called Federweißer. Federweißer is cloudy looking and a bit fizzy, and it’s also kinda sweet, so it’s sort of like drinking soda pop. It’s a bit dangerous, because you don’t feel like you’re drinking wine, and it’s very easy to get more than a bit tipsy on it without meaning to.

So maybe this can help you see why Jesus said that “no one puts new wine into old wineskins, for the old skins would burst from the pressure.” When wine first starts to ferment, it changes very quickly from must to new wine (or Federweißer), and from new wine to wine. Back before they had glass bottles (or cardboard boxes with spouts, if you’re on a budget), people would carry wine in wineskins, which were usually made from goat skins. If the wineskin was new and supple, it might be able to handle new wine. But if it were an old wineskin, chances are the expanding new wine would cause the skin to crack and break, and you’d end up losing the wine.

When Jesus said this, it was an answer to a question from followers of John the Baptist. Basically, they told him that John taught them to do things the old way, so why was Jesus doing things in a new way? Jesus’ answer was that he was something new that had come into the world. He didn’t fit into the old patterns. To force something new into the old way of doing things just wouldn’t work. That would be like patching an old pair of jeans with a piece of unshrunk cloth—the patch would shrink the first time you put it in the dryer and tear away from the old cloth. Or it would be like putting new wine in an old wineskin. The old wineskin was fine as long as you put old wine in it. But putting new wine in it would cause it to crack and it would no longer be good for anything.

One thing I want to point out here at this point is that Jesus wasn’t putting down John the Baptist and his traditional ways. Jesus and John were cousins. They loved each other. And John’s practice of the old-time religion was a wonderful thing. He did it with integrity, and he had quite a following.

Remember, Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law that John was upholding. He came to fulfill it and to help people understand its purpose. He said he wanted to preserve both the new wine and the old wineskins. So whether he was planning a whole new religious movement or planning simply a reformation of Judaism, he obviously saw the value in both the old and the new. And based on what he said about what would happen later, I think it’s reasonable to think that Jesus was looking forward to a day when old and new could finally be united in one container, or sewn together into a single garment.

Of course, that wasn’t to be. The new wine was poured into new wineskins and the old wine stayed in the old. But Jesus’ image of the wineskins has remained with us, and from time to time in the history of the church, I think we’ve been forced to revisit it—to realize that it’s happening to us again.

There have been many times throughout the history of the church when new win has bubbled up, new thinking has arisen, and the church has been challenged just as it was in the days of Jesus and John the Baptist. Back in the 12th century, a shadowy figure named Peter Waldo in Lyon, France gathered a following when he began to teach that all people should have access to the scriptures and that people should give up their material wealth and help the poor. They called themselves the Poor of Lyon, but others called them Waldensians. Their movement caught on like wildfire, but the hierarchy persecuted them mercilessly and they were nearly stamped out. But they held on, adopted Calvinism in the 16th century, and they still exist today—mostly as a progressive Protestant church in Italy.

Of course, as we know, on October 31, 1517, new wine once again appeared in the church. And when Martin Luther started preaching the gospel, the political situation allowed early Lutherans to store their ideas in new wineskins and what we call the Protestant Reformation spread like wildfire.

In the early 1600’s, a little group of Pilgrims were filled with new wine, and their new wineskin was a ship called the Mayflower. It took them thousands of miles away, where they were free to start a new way of life in a new country.

Almost two hundred years later, in that same country, as people moved west into Kentucky and Ohio, two men named Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell were once again filled with new wine. Thousands of settlers, drunk on that fizzy Federweißer, demanded simplicity and unity.

It was those Mayflower Pilgrims and the people of the Stone-Campbell movement who came together in 1950 to form Pilgrim Christian Church here in Ohio.

I suppose at one time we were a new wineskin filled with new wine. But those days are past. We’re now definitely an old wineskin, and sometimes I think we’re scared to death that new wine would break us apart.

But take heart! This pretty much describes much of Christianity these days. Church membership is plummeting in this country and across the western world. In the year 2000, 67% of Americans claimed to belong to one church or another—that’s two-thirds of the population. But in the year 2020, that number was just 47%—a minority for the first time in American history. And the number continues to go down. (It’s probably less than 45% today.)

It looks like the world needs new wine if Christianity’s going to survive the next few decades. And right now we think we know what that new wine looks like: churches that seem more like arenas… or warehouses, big screens, preachers in designer clothes prancing on stages, rock bands. And here we are in an old church on the square, pastor behind a pulpit, singing hymns from a book, quietly praying, listening, singing while standing still. New wine would crack us wide open.

Again, take heart: Jesus seemed to be concerned for us, too. He seemed to want the old wineskins to be preserved. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to change or evolve. And we certainly don’t want to be emptied out. And if the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that that is a real possibility.

So remember: New wine is delicious and it’s fun and it takes you in directions you might not expect. But the old vintages can also be delicious. I hope there’ll always be a place for thoughtful Christianity practiced in small congregations where the people know and take care of one another. But let’s not ever glory in our age, or deny that God can still do a new thing in our midst. For as long as Christ is present with us and in us, new life is not just possible, somehow, sometime, its going to happen.
—©2023 Sam Greening